On the definitive list of all-around amazing exercise activities, running ranks pretty highly. The practical benefits of running include its convenience and affordability, but from a health standpoint, it’s an effective way to keep both your body and brain in great shape.
Meghan Kennihan, NASM-CPT, and Road Runners Club of America and USA Triathlon run coach, says, “Running is one of the simplest cardiovascular activities you can do, with benefits for nearly every part of your body.” It can help with heart health, blood pressure, weight control, lung function, muscular endurance, and joint strength — and those are just are just a few of its potential physical effects.
3 Basic Types of Running
Of course, not all running is the same. There are many different ways to enjoy it, each of which can serve a unique purpose and provide different benefits.
This is probably the most commonly practiced form of running, in part because it’s the most doable. Kennihan defines it as running at a gentle pace slower than 6 mph (10 kph). “Typically, those [who] don’t enjoy running, or who aren’t going to be competing in any races, can get away with only jogging one to two times a week and still get health benefits,” she says. For people with minimal running experience, jogging can be a great way to get started.
When you increase your pace above 6 mph, you cross the threshold into what is technically running (as opposed to jogging). And when you keep up that pace for more than five miles, you’re “distance running.”
Although popular with all age groups, Kennihan explains that distance running tends to become increasingly attractive to people as they age and begin to lose fast-twitch muscle fibers. “While we can’t run any faster [after a certain age], we can still run longer and longer,” she says. Verrengia adds that distance running is also a great way to build up your cardiovascular health. The mental toughness you get as a result is just a bonus.
Jogging and distance running target your slow-twitch (type I) muscle fibers, which govern endurance. Alternately, sprinting targets the same fibers as weightlifting — your fast-twitch (type II) fibers — and when performed repeatedly in the context of a workout, is a form of high intensity interval training (HIIT). “Speed work, or interval training, encompasses bursts of intense effort separated by recovery periods of slower running, jogging, or walking,” says Kennihan. These types of workouts can help you increase your speed, running efficiency, and fatigue resistance, as well as your power and muscular endurance, she explains.
Speed work is also the most effective type of running workout for shedding fat. But because it is so physically demanding, it should only be performed after you’ve already built a strong fitness foundation through jogging and running.
Of course, as with any form of exercise, running has its risks. Sprained ankles and pulled muscles are obvious concerns if you run on uneven terrain or skip your warm-up. But even more insidious are so-called “overuse injuries” — like shin splints, tendonitis, and even stress fractures — which tend to occur when a runner increases his or her training load (e.g., mileage) too quickly, doesn’t allow for sufficient recovery time between workouts, and/or doesn’t facilitate that recovery by performing warm ups, cool-downs, and mobility work (think: foam rolling and dynamic stretching).
To avoid such injuries, make recovery a priority and gradually build up your mileage by no more than 10 percent per week, suggests Kennihan. Verrengia adds that it’s also important to actively work on optimizing your running form, regularly mixing up your workouts (e.g., by incorporating more speed work and hills into your routine), and including more than just running in your exercise regimen. “Runners need to realize that strength work, stretching, muscle release work [a.k.a. massage], foam rolling, [and the like] play an important role in how successfully and healthfully you’re able to run,” she explains.